Politics & Government

Obama won't campaign for Democrats when he visits Texas

President Barack Obama and the race question
President Barack Obama and the race question Tom Gralish/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT

AUSTIN -- When President Barack Obama visits Texas on Aug. 9, the state's top-tier Democratic candidate, gubernatorial nominee Bill White, will likely be miles away, reaching out to voters in Johnson County near Fort Worth.

Another Democratic hopeful for statewide office, Austin attorney Hector Uribe, says he'll be focused on his bid to unseat Republican Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson. Barbara Radnofsky, the Democrats' nominee for attorney general, says she too will be preoccupied with campaigning and has no plans to attend an Obama event.

In red-state Texas, many Democratic office-seekers don't seem inclined to cozy up to Obama when he makes his third presidential visit to the state -- and some, in fact, may feel more comfortable moving away from him.

Much of the state's conservative-oriented electorate opposes his policies, and Republican leaders from Gov. Rick Perry on down have made Obama-bashing a political sport. Moreover, the Democratic president is coming to Texas at a time when he is slumping in national polls and struggling over issues including the Gulf oil spill to the war in Afghanistan.

"In Texas, Obama, in terms of his favorability rating is no better than 40 [percent]," says Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "Unfavorable would be in the mid-50s. So that's the background context against which Texas politicians decide whether to be seen with Obama in his upcoming fundraising trip."

The Texas Democratic Party, as of last week, had no plans for an official welcome during the president's two-city fundraising mission in Austin and Dallas. By contrast, Republicans say they are more than happy to spotlight his visit and are planning a "Hands-Off Texas" rally on the south steps of the state Capitol to protest Obama's record.

State Democratic Chairman Boyd Richie said the party is focused on ousting Perry and other Republican incumbents in Texas, adding that "D.C. politics" and the 2012 presidential election aren't on the radar. "Texans are patriotic people and proud to support our president, but at the end of the day, we've been winning Texas elections on Texas issues, and that will again be the case this November," Richie said.

One statewide candidate who says she is eager to greet the president is Linda Chavez-Thompson, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. As one of five vice chairs for the Democratic National Committee, Chavez-Thompson will attend a DNC-sponsored luncheon for Obama at Austin's Four Seasons hotel.

"I think the president is doing well among Democrats," said Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president emerita of the AFL-CIO.

Tarrant County Democratic Chairman Steve Maxwell says Obama has "tremendous support" among rank-and-file Democrats. "Overall there's a lot of satisfaction in the job he's doing in incredibly difficult times," the Fort Worth attorney said. Maxwell said late last week that he hadn't been invited to an Obama event, but, "if I do [get invited] I'll jump at the chance to be there."

Although plans for the trip are still evolving, Obama was tentatively scheduled to headline private fundraisers in Austin and Dallas to raise money for Democratic candidates. The midday stop in Austin is also expected to include a public event that Obama may use to tout his administration's performance on the economy. The trip will be Obama's third visit to the state since he took office in January 2009.

While Obama clearly has a strong base of Democratic supporters such as Maxwell and Chavez-Thompson, analysts say he poses a potential handicap for Democratic candidates who need to reach beyond their party's voters to appeal to independents and Republicans in their bid to build a winning coalition in the Nov. 2 general election.

The challenge facing White, who is seeking to become the state's first Democratic governor since the mid-1990s, is to avoid being tarnished by Obama's negatives if he appears to strongly embrace the president or his policies, say political experts. But, they add, if White seems too eager to distance himself from Obama, the former Houston mayor could also risk alienating minorities and other bedrock Democrats who strongly support the president.

White, portraying himself as a business-oriented moderate with bipartisan appeal, has offered a mixed review of Obama's performance, saying many Texans want the president "to stay the course" with his Afghanistan policies but "have reservations" about the size of the federal deficit under the Obama administration. "Like most presidents, he has supporters and detractors," White said.

Shortly after Obama's trip was announced, White said he would keep his focus on campaigning and would not appear with the president. "I simply have a busy schedule in August meeting with Texans, letting them know who I am," he told the Star-Telegram last week while stressing that he intended "no disrespect to the president."

Obama became the first African-American president in history after defeating Republican John McCain in the 2008 election, but he lost to McCain in Texas by 55.4 percent to 43.6 percent. His race against Hillary Clinton in the Texas Democratic primary earlier that year helped draw a record turnout of 2.8 million voters, stoking predictions from party leaders that Democrats were headed toward a political resurgence in Texas.

Much of the president's grassroots organization in Texas remains intact through Organizing for America, which descended from the 2008 campaign organization, Obama for America, and is charged with building support for the president's agenda.

Led by 26-year-old director Luke Hayes, the Texas branch of Organizing for America is based in state Democratic headquarters in Austin and consists of a dozen staff members and teams of volunteers trying to get out the vote to help the Democratic cause in November.

The group's emphasis, Hayes said, is to retain and build on the enthusiasm that brought thousands of first-time Texas voters into the political process with Obama's candidacy in 2008. The organization staged 55 events on a single day in June as part of a statewide party-building effort that includes phone banks and neighborhood door-knocking efforts. Although the organization's focus is on the current election year, the grassroots network could form the underpinnings for Obama's Texas re-election campaign if he seeks a second term in 2012.

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